Life is hard.
Sometimes things happen that are so tragic, it's difficult to believe anything else in the world can go on the same. That the sun could rise, the wind could blow. That anything happy could be. Ever again.
I had a sweet friend in college and her name was Jen. We lived together at 4-H House. We loved peeps – I blame her for my sugary marshmallow addiction – and she was a mentor and roommate and friend in every sense of the words. I loved her. Three weeks after she graduated, a drunk driver broadsided her family's car in a rural intersection. She and her younger sister, Jackie, were killed. Her parents and her fiancé, also in the car, were terribly injured.
It was unbearably painful.
Her parents, Barb and Jim Esworthy were farmers from St. Joseph, Ill. They eventually recovered from their physical injuries. The loss of their daughters, less so. The man who killed them had been driving illegally for 13 years after his license was revoked for repeated DUI offenses. He should've been in jail the weekend of the accident.
Later that year, in the fall of 1997, I stood in the 4-H House alcove with Jim. It was nearly Dad's Weekend, one of the most favorite and anticipated events of the year on campus, but especially at 4-H House. As you might well imagine, there's little like the bond between a farmer and his daughter. Jim hadn't missed one in all of Jen's four years. That fall would've been Jackie's first.
Jim and I stood and talked. In the course of our conversation, he came to realize that there were some dads not coming that year; Dad's Weekend fell at the end of September that year. Harvest.
There are certain slices of time that stand out in my mind, that I'll never forget, for all of my days. Like curly-haired, boundless-energy Jen bouncing into our room at the end of the day. And like the fire in Jim Esworthy's eyes – and real tears – when he realized there were Dads who could be there who were choosing not to be. He was aghast. Mouth open, hand on his forehead, aghast. He was ready to make phone calls and set them straight. Because the only thing he wanted in the world was to go to Dad's Weekend that year with his little girl, and he couldn't.
And influence. I think of Jim Esworthy and the choice he wanted every parent to make, so very often.
And influence, despite the pain. Or because of it. Jim and Barb funneled their grief into a cause, founding an organization called Journey, which raises money to put cameras in police cars to help in prosecution of drunk drivers. Especially repeat drunk drivers, like the one who killed their daughters. The goal is to give everyone a safer journey home.
Jim told me once, "We'll feel their loss until the day we die. Faith in God is the only way you can get through something like this. I don't think about him, the driver. I think about Jennifer and Jackie every day, about the times we had together and about seeing them again someday."
This weekend is Dad's Weekend at the University of Illinois. With any degree of luck, there are farmer dads parking tractors and combines and heading to campus today and tomorrow. Making the choice Jim Esworthy wished with all his heart to make.
It's what makes him an agriculturalist who influences.
Editor's note: The drunk driver plead guilty to two counts of reckless homicide. He was released from prison in 2003. He was re-arrested for drunk driving within a year.
Agriculturalists Who Influence: The Series
- Day 1: Introduction
- Day 2: Jim Evans
- Day 3: Becky Doyle
- Day 4: David and Nancy Erickson
- Day 5: Katie Pinke
- Day 6: Joe Hampton
- Day 7: Noreen Frye
- Day 8: Carolyn Olson
- Day 9: John and Kendra Smiley
- Day 10: Colleen Callahan
- Day 11: Neil and Debbie Fearn
- Day 12: Martin Barbre
- Day 13: Pam Smith
- Day 14: Jim Esworthy